Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Christmas in July

iTunes has been besieging me with Christmas music lately. Why this happened and how I fixed it cannot be explained, however, without delving into the maze of twisty little passages (also known as playlists) that I use to manage my iTunes and iPod listening experience. So strap on your spelunking gear, here we go!

As I've written about previously, I make heavy use of iTunes Smart Playlists. I now have over 80 of these dynamic lists doing everything from keeping a running inventory of everything I have downloaded from eMusic to collecting all the songs by bands mentioned in Michael Azerrad's history of 80's indie music, Our Band Could Be Your Life. One of the criteria that a Smart List can search for is inclusion on another playlist. As a result, you can create rather complex systems of interrelated lists. And of course, I have done just that.

My usual playlist for general listening is the 'Mix-o-matic' (played through Party Shuffle when I am on my laptop and set to random shuffle when I am listening to the iPod). Mix-o-matic is a simple Smart Playlist that just combines the songs from two other lists: 'New Arrivals' and 'Good songs I have neglected' (GSIHN). The former is exactly what you would expect it to be: everything I have added to the library in the last 4 weeks (with a few extra conditions to filter out podcasts, videos and the like). The size of new arrivals varies depending on how vigorously I have been acquiring music, but especially with my eMusic subscription and other sources, it's typically in the 100-200 song range.

The latter list is a bit more arcane and was the source of the recent Christmas invasion. It used to look like this: Screenshot of original 'Good songs I have neglected' Smart Playlist criteria. The point of this playlist, as its name suggests, is to make sure that I don't get into a rut with my listening by constantly feeding me (good) songs I haven't listened to in a while. The three playlists that it references are, again, pretty self-explanatory: they collect songs I have rated with three, four and five stars, respectively. I've had those lists for a long time, because I have been interested in keeping track of how I rate music (but that is a subject for another post). The important part of GSIHN is the 'Limit to' condition. It selects the 100 songs (rated 3 stars or above) that I've listened to least recently. The Mix-o-matic list then shuffles those in with the new stuff and voilĂ , I get a nice balance of old and new music that constantly refreshes itself. With my library now at over 9000 songs, the average "age" of songs in GSIHN is six or seven months. Thus, the sudden appearance of Christmas music just now.

(A further complication of my system was that skipping a song does not increment its Last Played date, so my first response of skipping over the Christmas songs as they appeared actually made the problem worse because they "pooled" in the GSIHN list while everything that wasn't Christmas music cycled through).

This brings me to one of my few gripes about iTunes. Currently, a Smart Playlist can only search for ALL of your criteria or ANY of them (AND vs. OR for Boolean logic fans). Because I had created this list as an "Any" search, I couldn't just add an additional criterion to exclude the Christmas music. Instead, I had to flip the search on its head and construct it this way: Screenshot of new 'Good songs I have neglected' Smart Playlist criteria. Instead of combining the three existing "Stars=x" playlists, this list first applies criterion 'Playlist is Music' criterion (which is included in the other lists) to exclude videos and other non-music content, adds the rating (greater than 2 stars) criterion, and then excludes any song with Holiday as the genre (which is all the Christmas songs). Finally, just like the old GSIHN list, it trims this to the 100 least-recently played tracks. No more Christmas carols in July!

While I was tinkering with this list, I also decided to fix another quirk of my system. Obviously, GSIHN only pulls songs I have actually rated. I have an ongoing campaign to get all my music rated, but there are still some 2200 songs in my library that have not been rated. These are disproportionately made up of classical music and and jazz, because I find it hard to rate these (especially the classical), and in any case I don't really approach that music the say way (when I want to hear opera, I will listen to the whole opera, not a random selection of arias). But I've been on a bit of jazz kick lately and decided it was unfair to largely exclude it from the general rotation. So I created a new playlist, 'Mix-o-matic Plus', which is the same as Mix-o-matic but adds a third source to the list: the Listen More playlist: Screenshot of  the 'Listen More' Smart Playlist criteria. The main purpose of Listen More is to force me to listen to songs I have not played enough to form an opinion about. All the "Genre is not" criteria are there to exclude things that I don't really care about rating, and the "Playcount is less than 8" criterion restricts the list to songs that have not gotten a fair shake yet. (There is a similar list, 'Rate these already!' that collects unrated songs that have been listened to more times). Right now, Listen More is heavily populated by jazz because that had been one of the excluded genres until this latest round of tinkering. For the moment, the large jazz contingent makes Mix-o-matic Plus different enough from the traditional Mix-o-matic to keep them distinct.

So that's where I stand now. I am happy with my shuffles again and enjoying the influx of jazz into my usual routine of mopey indie rock and angry punk.